Clause 26 - Breach of requirements as to control of vehicle, mobile telephones etc.

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 28th March 2006.

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Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:15 pm, 28th March 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 67, in clause 26, page 32, line 5, after ‘device’, insert

‘except in circumstances where a motor vehicle with a manual gearbox is placed in neutral and the handbrake applied, and a motor vehicle with an automatic gearbox is placed in Park’.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 11—Offence of using a mobile phone while cycling—

‘A person who rides a pedal cycle on a public road while using a hand-held mobile telephone or other hand-held interactive communication device, is guilty of an offence under section 28 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (dangerous cycling).’.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The amendments are probing in nature. They try to address the world as it is rather than as some people might prefer it to be. We contend that in some circumstances, it could be a major safety gain to allow drivers to use a hand-held mobile phone when their vehicles are guaranteed to be stationary. If the car has a manual gearbox, it should be in neutral with the handbrake on, and if it is automatic, the gear lever should be placed firmly in “park”. We are thinking of circumstances such as a young mother caught in a large traffic jam who needs to get a message to her baby-sitter, someone who is collecting a child from school or someone with an elderly relative who needs to warn a carer that they are completely stuck on the M1 and might be stuck for hours. There is a clear case that the mobile phone is a useful safety tool under such circumstances. People have suggested the   possibility of pulling into the nearside lane. When stuck on the M1, as I was the other day, it is not really possible to move lanes.

Ours is a reasonable, common-sense amendment. It is supported by an interesting piece of research that I dug out from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. It was published by Graham, Cohen, Park and Lissy at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. I shall not go into too much detail—it is a lengthy report at 100 pages long—but, in brief, the report says that the scientific evidence to date on cellular phone use while driving is weighted toward the risk to the driver and passengers as well as other road users. Incredibly little research has been done into the benefits to the users of mobile phones—benefits not just to households, social networks and businesses but to whole communities. Many of those benefits, including public health and safety benefits, have not yet been recognised or quantified.

One of the main topics of the report is improved knowledge of emergencies. The authors have evidence from emergency personnel that because motorists use cellular phones from their cars to report emergencies, emergency personnel are better able to anticipate the emergency situation and what type of equipment might be needed. Emergency workers report that they receive information from multiple callers with different views of the same scene and are better able to distribute their vehicles and manpower.

The other important element is the golden hour, a concept originally described by Dr. R. Adams Cowley. The golden hour is the one-hour period following severe injuries during which getting a patient to accident and emergency has an enormous impact. The likelihood of getting that golden hour is increased enormously by the use of mobile phones. A survey in Australia sounded out 700 cellular phone users on the issue. The report’s conclusion is simple. Enormous benefits are gained from being able to use cellular phones at the appropriate moment, but they have not yet been assessed. Very little research has been done.

Our amendment would allow mobile phone use under clear circumstances: in a traffic jam with no prospect of getting to a phone, or in emergency circumstances when it would be sensible to be allowed to use a hand-held phone. We totally endorse the Government’s view that hand-held phones should not under any circumstances be used when a vehicle is moving.

I turn to our new clause on bicycles. I might get myself into trouble with people who are frequently seen in the popular press on their bicycles, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). Even my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has frequently been seen using his bike. I do not like to conjecture whether he uses his phone; perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Henley does. The issue is simple: a bicycle is under better control with two hands on the handlebars, not one hand on the handlebars and the other on a hand-held phone. I do not need to elaborate further.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I rise to support the common-sense approach of my hon. Friend on the two issues. Of course it is important that we send out a message to motorists to discourage them from using a mobile phone or other interactive device while they are driving—in the normal sense of the word. I think it was Lord Reid who in a famous case decided that when a motorist is stationary in a queue of traffic, intending to continue his journey, he is still driving in the legal sense, even though the car is not in motion and no other road user is at risk from his activities at that moment in time. As presently drafted, the law could lead to a police officer walking down a line of cars that are stuck in a traffic jam, giving out tickets to motorists who happen to be on the telephone.

Yesterday, I had the misfortune to be stuck in a traffic jam on the M1 motorway between junctions 29 and 28. Presumably due to the incompetence of two or more motorists, there had been a collision, and the radio reports indicated that two lanes of the motorway were closed. The length of my journey was increased by approximately one hour and 15 minutes. As it happened, however, I did not have to reschedule any meetings.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I do not own a Ferrari. It occurs to me that it would be more, not less, likely to increase the road rage of a driver in such a position if he felt that he could not telephone ahead to inform those he was seeking to meet that he had been unavoidably delayed. How much more that would be true of a young mother held in a traffic jam who realises that she will not be there to meet her child at the school gates. Not everyone has the benefit of a hands-free car kit. If she could use the phone, her mind would be put at rest, and the safety of the child would be assured.

There should be a common-sense approach. I well remember that, some 20 years ago, I had attended a concert with a musician friend of mine, and was travelling home with him in the band’s van. He knew a short cut. The road was controlled by some temporary traffic lights because of a trench that was being dug, but the stretch of road was perfectly straight for at least half a mile. I am sure that the temporary traffic lights were necessary during the daytime, but it was 2 am and my friend’s van was the only vehicle travelling in our direction. There were no other vehicles on the road—certainly none coming the other way.

The temporary traffic lights were on red and my friend did something he should not have done. It was 2 am, he could see that there were no other vehicles about, so he went through the red light. Guess what happened, Sir Nicholas. As soon as he was through the red light, two police officers jumped out of a hedge, pulled him over, and gave him a ticket for going through a red light.

There we have police officers in a rural area, hiding in a hedge to catch a motorist going through red lights at 2 am when there were no other vehicles around. I know that, without the amendment, there will be some regulation-ridden, pen-pushing nincompoop of a police officer, who will go down a line of parked cars, giving out tickets to people who are using a telephone. Even though it is quite safe for them to do so, they will be guilty of an offence because technically they will be driving.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will seriously consider accepting the amendment.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Having just collected my children, which is why I was delayed, and knowing what a nuisance it is if people use mobile phones, I think that it is reasonable to include the provision. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree? If people want to phone, they can park and get out of their cars. The much bigger risk, which the provision is designed to prevent, is people driving around when children are crossing the road, stopping and starting and posing a real risk to the safety of those children.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee 5:30 pm, 28th March 2006

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s conclusion. In the incident in which I was involved on the M1, it would have been highly dangerous to encourage motorists to get out of their cars and wander across to the hard shoulder to use the telephone. The car in front of the car in front and all cars as far as one could see were stationary. Let me put the question back to her: what danger does she see in a motorist using a telephone when he is in a traffic jam with his vehicle in park or with the hand brake on?

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

The problem in a built-up area is that the jam can start to move. Children can run in front of the cars because they think that they are parked. One’s attention can be elsewhere and there can be an accident. One has only to do a regular school run to know that. If one is on the M1, one can pull in to service stations and other places in order to make phone calls.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

The hon. Lady has not answered the question that I put to her. I am talking about being in a traffic jam on the M1, from which one cannot pull over, and being clear that one will be in that position for some time. When I am on a normal A road or in a town centre, temporarily stuck in traffic, I do not put my car in park or have the hand brake on, because I expect to move away fairly shortly.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

The right hon. Gentleman seems more concerned about people being caught breaking the law than he is about whether they are actually breaking it. He mentioned earlier that we should take a common-sense approach. Would it not be common sense, instead of looking for   opportunities to relax or even break the law, to encourage people to buy hands-free sets? Those can be bought in most service stations for less than a tenner.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I am anxious to ensure that, as far as possible, people are not able to say in respect of particular legislation that the law is an ass. If one is stationary in a queue and one’s vehicle—if it is automatic—is in park, one’s hand brake is on, and one is using a phone that is not a hands-free device, what danger is one posing to other road users? I venture to suggest that the answer is none. That is why I believe that a common-sense approach should be taken to the provision.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

Surely the danger from a legal perspective is that we are leaving it to the driver to decide what kind of traffic jam he or she is in. Is it one that will be stationary for the next 20 minutes or for one minute? Would not the right hon. Gentleman’s approach open up a new range of work for lawyers: pleading specific circumstances in favour of a particular defendant? It should not be up to individual drivers to decide that they are in a particular type of traffic jam. They are either in charge of a vehicle or they are not, and the law must be clear—for good reasons.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I have a greater confidence in the common sense of a good motorist than the hon. Gentleman does. There are circumstances, such as a long-term traffic jam, in which it is safe to use the telephone. Responsible motorists would not dream of using a telephone if they felt that their delay was of a transitory nature only, and that the queue was about to move. I am not with him on that point.

On new clause 11, I support my hon. Friend. Too often, people who ride on our highways on pedal cycles think that they are exempt from the laws of motoring. Yesterday, after I had managed to survive the hour-and-a-quarter delay on the M1, I went to my house in Pimlico and then drove to this House down Warwick way, a fairly straight road with several sets of traffic lights. In Warwick way, I saw two cyclists, one with no hands on the handle bars—one hand was holding his mobile phone and the other was dangling by his side. His friend, who was cycling alongside him, was alternating between riding on the road and on the pavement. These two characters went through three sets of red traffic lights in Warwick way.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Chair, Procedure Committee

I did not follow them, but because it was a straight road I could see them. It was just about lighting-up time but they had no lights on their bikes. Sometimes, one wishes that the police would show the same enthusiasm for stopping pedal cyclists who break the law as they do for stopping motorists when they do the same.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

I rise to support the common-sense amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). The   word “driving” in road traffic legislation is extremely wide, and the answer to the question about the traffic jam is that it is a traffic jam in which the person concerned has decided to apply their handbrake or to put their car into “park” so that they are stationary. The amendment makes that clear; the vehicle will be stationary only in those circumstances.

With reference to new clause 11, if people use a mobile phone while cycling they present a hazard to themselves and to other road users. We should be sending a strong message to all road users that, if they use a mobile phone while driving, they will not be paying sufficient care and attention to what is happening to them, and will put themselves and others in danger.

I suspect that the Minister will tell us that there is already an offence of being in charge of a cycle while not properly in control of it, and that using a mobile phone while cycling demonstrates that the cyclist is not cycling properly or safely. If cycling while using a mobile phone is an unsafe and undesirable practice, and the Government are aware of it, why should there be a specific offence that applies to motorists, but no such offence for cyclists? The Minister will have to provide an extremely convincing response or accept the amendment.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

I hope that I will provide a convincing response. The closest I came to agreeing with the hon. Members for Wimbledon and for North Shropshire was when they said that the police should do a lot more to enforce road traffic legislation in respect of cyclists. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire mentioned his experience the other day. I suspect that the two individuals he described were committing at least four offences for which they could have been stopped and prosecuted, irrespective of whether a new offence is created. There is indeed already an offence of not being in proper control of one’s cycle, which is quite adequate to deal with the circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman described. What is lacking at present is the unwillingness of the police to enforce that legislation, a matter that I will discuss at my regular meeting with the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Last week, on two occasions, I saw a cyclist riding his bicycle the wrong way round Parliament square in front of at least four police officers standing at the gates of Speaker’s Court. If that person was not even stopped and told to be more sensible, is it any wonder that cyclists largely ignore the highway code? However, there is already legislation to deal with the matter. We do not need the amendment, which would just be another piece of legislation for some of those people to ignore. What we need is to encourage the police to deal with them.

During this debate, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire confessed to two things that surprised me. I always thought he was a car lover who understood motor cars, but I now discover that he has neither a Ferrari nor an Alfa Romeo, which says to me that he has no judgment whatever about Italian machinery. He also tells me that he puts his car “in park”, which means that he is driving an automatic, so in my book he is no lover of driving.

The right hon. Gentleman describes scenarios, such as when one is in a traffic jam on the motorway. The hon. Member for North Shropshire mentioned similar events. In such circumstances, if people are phoning to say that they are stuck, immobile and cannot get on, why cannot we leave it to the police to use common sense about not booking them? That is what I would recommend. If we go down the route suggested by the Conservatives and set some criteria determining when people are not driving their car, what would sort of situation would we end up with? The second a policeman tapped on a person’s window, saying, “Hey, you! You’re using a mobile phone,” the person would whip their car into neutral, put the handbrake on and say, “I can use my mobile phone in these circumstances. I’m not driving my car.”

Having called all Vehicle and Operator Services Agency officials swinish followers of the law the other day, the right hon. Gentleman has now referred to those honourable boys and girls in blue as nincompoops. If I were him, I would keep my 15 vehicles well away from the highway any time in the next few months.

It is reasonable for a policeman to stop people using a mobile phone when he sees them driving up to a traffic light and can stop them without causing any danger or inconvenience to other road users. However, the Conservative amendment would allow people to pull up to the traffic lights, use their handbrake and say, “Sorry, officer, I’m not driving my vehicle so I don’t need to listen to what you say about the use of my mobile phone.”

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State), Department of Health

My hon. Friend pre-empts my point about the amendment, which would, as it is worded, allow anyone to stop their car and put it in “park”, which many people already do at traffic lights. He has used that form of words because a traffic jam cannot be defined in legislation.

In defence of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, and all of us who use automatic cars, using an automatic enhances the driving experience.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

For once, I shall have seriously to disagree with my hon. Friend. I am of that group of motorists who would never give garage room to an automatic vehicle. However, he is right to say that the amendment would be unenforceable. It is difficult enough already to enforce the rules about using a mobile phone while driving, so trying to define what is meant by driving will just make the situation even worse and more impossible.

My strong advice to Conservative Members is not to refer to the police as nincompoops any more, but trust them to use their common sense, encourage them to enforce the new penalty that we will discuss in the clause stand part debate and ensure that people stop using their mobile phone while driving. I remind Opposition Members, before they think that there may be any votes in being soft on the use of mobile phones while people are driving, that in the Christmas poll organised by Radio 4, that was voted the second most annoying offence that people see committed in this country. The public at large expect the police to start   getting tough about it and the clause gives the police that power. I am afraid that the Conservative amendments would weaken their ability to enforce it.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I was not wholly convinced by the Minister’s response. I stress immediately that the Conservatives do not endorse the use of hand-held mobile phones when driving. We were addressing circumstances—we have to repeat this—where the vehicle was clearly stationary. There is also a safety angle, which the Minister did not address. I should like him to look at the research in America, which suggests that there are real safety advantages from drivers having mobile phones.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

One of the problems we face with the internet Sir Nicholas, of which I am a great fan—[Interruption.]

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Dr. Stephen Ladyman, did I hear a mobile telephone? A Blackberry? I am very conscious of mobile telephones at this moment.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport

Sir Nicholas, I am a great fan of the internet, but it has two problems. One is that my constituents in the Friday afternoon surgery are usually better informed about issues than me. The second is that it allows Conservative Members to trawl for research that they would otherwise never find and that tends not to be very well peer reviewed. I can assure the hon. Member for North Shropshire that the research we have done makes it clear that the use of mobile phones is dangerous. Indeed, the use of hands-free phone kits is also very dangerous and we need to do anything we can to clamp down on it.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think the internet is good if it brings information from as far away as the United States to the Minister’s attention to show the security benefits of mobile phones. This was a 100-page report, which I hope someone in his office may get to read. However, we want to move on.

I am not entirely convinced by the Minister’s response, but we will reflect further and may well come back to the matter on Report. For the moment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 26 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 27 and 28 ordered to stand part of the Bill.